How Ohio has responded to COVID-19: The first tests arrive

Press Conference
Gov. Mike DeWine convenes a COVID-19 press conference on March 7.

This was still a calm before the storm.

Gov. Mike DeWine had already hosted a crowded press conference announcing changes to the Arnold Sports Festival. He had also hosted a large gathering of top state officials to help prepare with how the new coronavirus would impact all aspects in Ohio’s government.

He, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton and three other health officials were back at the Ohio Statehouse to discuss the virus with reporters. This was truly the first press conference — of many more to come — which centered on the virus and its health impacts. 

Still, much of the talk could still be categorized as prelude. There still was not a confirmed case of COVID-19 in all of Ohio. The goal instead was to roll out a new testing plan that would be able to identify positive cases and isolate them from the rest of society.

It would take another three months for DeWine and Acton to announce a widespread testing plan to allow everyone to receive a test. That came on June 11, the day that Acton also announced her resignation as state health director. 

In early March, though, the goal was to prepare Ohio for the storm ahead. This article is the third in a series by the Ohio Capital Journal looking back at some of the initial press conferences held in regard to the virus. The purpose of this series is to provide a fair, measured reflection on some of the early decisions, statements and predictions made by state officials. 

March 7, 2020

Unlike the crowd of officials at the first COVID-19 press conference days earlier, this one held on a Saturday featured five: DeWine; Acton; Mike Abrams, CEO of the Ohio Hospital Association; Dr. Andrew Thomas, chief clinical officer of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center; and Dr. Larry Blosser, corporate medical director for the Central Ohio Primary Care.

These five hoped to educate the general public about the virus, but they also provided guidance to medical professionals about what to do if you suspect a patient may have COVID-19. 

At this point, there were no confirmed cases in Ohio. Nine people had tested negative, and five others were waiting to receive their test results. DeWine announced the ODH data would begin being updated daily. Since then, COVID-19 statistics have been widely reported by journalists each day at around 2 p.m.

The big news was that Ohio would begin to conduct its own testing:

The initial kit sent to ODH by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed the state to be able to test between 300-400 people total. That supplements the number tested by private labs; it was also mentioned that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base got its own CDC kit to test those in the military.

In the beginning, DeWine said, it would be important to ration tests for those who are “the sickest and most at-risk.” This also included “front-line workers” and health care professionals. As testing became more prevalent, officials said, the rest of the general public would be able to get tested. 

All results would come straight to ODH, according to Acton, “so we will be seeing all those results and be able to take responses as a state very strategically.”

Acton then noted the ODH website and phone number set up to handle COVID-19 questions and issues:

In his brief talk, Adams complimented the leadership in state government working on COVID-19 planning.

“Every state will have limited resources to deal with this situation,” he said. “We have a solid plan to optimize the use of those resources…”

Thomas highlighted the importance of ODH conducting tests, saying the “turnaround time” for getting results will be dramatically improved: 

Thomas outlined some of the basic symptoms of COVID-19, which are well understood now but at that time were still unknown to most Ohioans: fever, cough and shortness of breath. He then described what should happen if a person is experiencing these symptoms in a health care setting.

The first step, he said, is to put a mask on them and usher them into a private room away from others. Then, arrangements can be made to secure a test for that person. If they are severely ill they should be sent straight to an emergency department, Thomas said.

“There is a requirement that there be a provider’s order to have the testing done,” he noted. “So for patients in the community, this isn’t something you can just walk up to a lab and ask to be tested.”

(Here is the present guidance on testing in Ohio.)

Blosser stressed that Ohioans should call their healthcare provider before making any other rash decisions. It would be helpful, he predicted, to talk to someone knowledgeable about the coronavirus because information would be changing “day by day, hour by hour.”

DeWine then opened the floor for reporters’ questions and was asked if the Arnold Sports Festival — which was wrapping up the following day — was in compliance with the state’s orders.

“To my knowledge they have been,” the governor answered. “I have no information that they’re not and I suspect I would’ve heard it.”

DeWine was then asked about the March Madness basketball tournament, with play-in games still scheduled 10 days later in Dayton.

The governor said the games did not appear to pose an “unreasonable risk” and said they were still on as scheduled: 

The entire March Madness tournament was canceled five days later. 

At this point, people were still skeptical about its dangers. Though DeWine and Acton had called the press conference to announce the new testing plan, one reporter questioned whether the point instead was about “fear-mongering” the public. The reporter asked, “is coronavirus dangerous enough to warrant all this talk?”

Here was Acton’s response:

The next day was Sunday. No press conference was held.

DeWine, Acton and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted convened another press conference the following Monday. From that day forward, the governor hosted a COVID-19 press conference every day for the next 27 days.

The 2 p.m. press conferences would become a fixture in households all across the state.